The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was back on track Sunday as the militants freed 17 more hostages, including 14 Israelis, in a third set of releases under a four-day cease-fire deal.
Red Cross representatives transferred the hostages out of Gaza. Some were handed over directly to Israel, while others left through Egypt. Israel's army said one was airlifted directly to an Israeli hospital.
The Israeli hostages ranged in age from 4 to 84 and included Abigail Edan, a 4-year-old girl whose parents were killed in the Hamas attack that started the war on Oct. 7. In all, nine children ages 17 and younger were on the list, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
Separately, Hamas said it had released one of the Russian hostages it was holding, “in response to the efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin” and as a show of appreciation for Moscow’s position on the war. Israeli army radio had reported that it was an Israeli-Russian dual national.
Israel was to free 39 Palestinian prisoners later Sunday as part of the deal. A fourth exchange is expected on Monday — the last day of the cease-fire during which a total of 50 hostages and 150 Palestinian prisoners are to be freed. All are women and minors.
International mediators led by the U.S. and Qatar are trying to extend the cease-fire.
Ahead of the latest release, Netanyahu visited the Gaza Strip, where he spoke with troops. “We are making every effort to return our hostages, and at the end of the day we will return every one,” he said, adding that “we are continuing until the end, until victory. Nothing will stop us.” It was not immediately clear where he went inside Gaza.
In a separate development, Hamas announced that one of its top commanders had been killed, without saying when or how. Israel's military confirmed it.
The cease-fire agreement has brought the first significant pause in seven weeks of war, marked by the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades and vast destruction and displacement across the Gaza Strip.
Hamas and other militant groups seized around 240 people during the rampage across southern Israel that ignited the war.
Pressure from hostages' families has sharpened the dilemma facing Israel's leaders, who seek to eliminate Hamas as a military and governing power while returning all the captives.
The war has claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians killed by Hamas in the initial attack. More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed, roughly two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The cease-fire, which began Friday, was brokered by Qatar and Egypt and the United States. Israel has said the truce can be extended by an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed but has vowed to quickly resume its offensive once it ends. Sullivan said the U.S. is working “with all sides on the possibility that this deal gets extended to additional hostages beyond the initial 50.”
Hamas Commander Killed
Hamas announced the death of Ahmed al-Ghandour, without providing further details. He was in charge of northern Gaza and a member of Hamas' top military council, and is the highest-ranking militant known to have been killed in the fighting.
Al-Ghandour, believed to have been around 56 years old, had survived at least three Israeli attempts on his life, and helped plan a cross-border attack in 2006 in which Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier, according to the Counter Extremism Project, an advocacy group based in Washington.
Hamas said he was killed along with three other senior militants, including Ayman Siam, who Israel says was in charge of Hamas' rocket-firing unit. The Israeli military had mentioned both men in a Nov. 16 statement, saying it had targeted an underground complex where Hamas leaders were hiding and accusing the group of concealing their deaths.
The Israeli military claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence, including several mid-ranking commanders it has identified by name.
Aid and Respite in Gaza
The pause has given some respite to Gaza's 2.3 million people, still reeling from relentless Israeli bombardment that has driven three-quarters of the population from their homes and leveled residential areas. Rocket fire from Gaza militants into Israel also went silent.
War-weary Palestinians in northern Gaza, where the offensive has focused, returned to the streets to survey the damage. Entire city blocks in and around Gaza City have been gutted by airstrikes that hollowed out buildings and left drifts of rubble in the street.
In southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people from the north have sought refuge, residents lined up outside gas stations for a second day, hoping to stock up on fuel. Palestinians who have tried to return to the north to see if their homes are still intact have been turned back by Israeli troops.
"Many are desperate to return to their homes, but they open fire on anyone approaching from the south," said Rami Hazarein, who fled from Gaza City last month.
The United Nations said the truce has made it possible to scale up the delivery of food, water and medicine to the largest volume since the start of the war. It was also able to fuel for the first time since the war began, and to reach areas in the north for the first time in a month.
Bittersweet Moment for Hostage Families
Shortly before midnight, Hamas released the second group of hostages, 13 Israelis and four Thais. They were turned over to Egypt and then transferred to Israel, where they were taken to hospitals.
Hamas released a video showing the hostages appearing shaken but mostly in good physical condition as masked militants led them to Red Cross vehicles. Some of the hostages waved goodbye to the militants. One girl was on crutches and wore a cast on her left foot.
The Israeli hostages freed on Saturday included seven children and six women, Netanyahu's office announced. Most were from Kibbutz Be'eri, a community Hamas militants ravaged during their Oct. 7 cross-border attack. The children ranged in age from 3 to 16, and the women ranged from 18 to 67.
All the released hostages either had a family member killed in the Oct. 7 rampage or a loved one still in captivity in Gaza, a kibbutz spokesperson said.
A Hero's Welcome in West Bank
Many Palestinians view prisoners held by Israel, including those implicated in deadly attacks, as heroes resisting occupation, and many of those who were released received a hero's welcome.
In the West Bank town of Al-Bireh, newly released teenage boys were paraded through the main square where they waved Palestinian flags as well as green banners of Hamas and yellow banners of the rival Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas.
The war in Gaza has been accompanied by a surge in violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Palestinian health authorities said early Sunday that five Palestinians were killed in an Israeli military raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin that began the day before.
The military said it had arrested a suspect in the killing of an Israeli father and son at a car wash in the West Bank earlier this year. The army has conducted frequent military raids and arrested hundreds of Palestinians since the start of the war, mostly people it suspects of being Hamas members.